Douglas W. Judson
What municipal council hopefuls need to know
This column was published in Postmedia's Kenora Miner & News on April 21, 2022. It is available on the newspaper's website.
Nominations for election to the 2022-26 term of council for Ontario’s municipalities will be open from May 2 to August 19, with an October 24 voting day. While local elections serve as an opportunity for change and a performance review of incumbents looking to stay in office, it’s important that candidates enter the fray with an understanding of the municipal structure and how individual elected members can use it to influence municipal affairs.
Ontario municipalities are created under provincial legislation. This means that the province can merge, dissolve, or make changes to municipalities at any time (as the Ford government did during the 2018 election). The legislation that governs most municipalities is the Municipal Act, 2001. It sets out their governing structure. In Northwestern Ontario, all of our municipalities are single-tier (meaning that there is no county or regional council that exercises powers apart from the local council).
Within the municipal governance structure, there are 3 main parties: council, the head of council, and the administration. The municipal government functions best and in the most transparent and accountable manner when members of council and staff understand the division of responsibilities, respect it, and hold one another accountable to it.
A municipality acts through the enaction of by-laws, which is the domain of council. Council has broad jurisdiction to pass by-laws respecting matters such as the governance of the municipality, the accountability and transparency of the municipality, the economic, social, and environmental wellbeing of the municipality, the health and safety of persons, the protection of property and persons, parking, roads, traffic, signs, and business licensing. Councils can also express opinions or give direction to staff by adopting resolutions. Council is required to enact a procedural by-law, which outlines how business is conducted in meetings.
Importantly, the Act is silent on the role of individual members of council (other than the mayor). While this has occasionally led to confusion about the rights and responsibilities of councillors, the purpose of this is to emphasize that the municipality only acts on behalf of the will of a majority of council, expressed by a vote of its members. Individual council members have no authority to take any action on behalf of the municipality unless directed by council. The Act tries to account for some of this lack of clarity around the role of individual councillors by requiring municipalities to adopt policies governing the relationship between staff and council and enacting a code of conduct which members are expected to comply with. These policies may state how members are to communicate with staff and what access to municipal information they are entitled to.
In general, the head of council – typically a mayor or reeve – is a “first among equals” at council. The mayor has no special authority unless council directs otherwise or the Act provides it. In some larger cities, by-laws are enacted to create an executive office for the mayor, where they have their own political staff. Generally though, mayors have no authority to unilaterally act for the municipality. In fact, Ontario municipalities have been described as having “weak mayor” system, whereby the mayor is merely a meeting chair and political spokesperson for the municipality with the ability to use their leadership position to influence outcomes. While the mayor, on paper, is the “CEO” of the municipality, judges have confirmed that this role confers no actual power and is not analogous to a corporate chief executive. In short: the mayor is not “the boss” of council members or staff. A mayor who wants to enact the promises in their platform has to be a collaborative leader who can build alliances around the table.
On the operational side of the municipality, it is the city staff (known as the administration in the Act) who are responsible for implementing the policy choices and decisions of council. Staff are non-partisan and are forbidden from showing preference to the mayor or councillors. Most councils in our region have appointed a chief administrative officer (or CAO) who is the head of the staff. This person is directly accountable to council, and all other staff report to them (with some exception for the clerk and treasurer, who have special statutory duties under the Act).
What is often lost in (or conveniently omitted from) council orientation is that councillors are independent. They can publicly express disagreement with council decisions and the mayor. And they should – because their primary accountability is to the public. Their main job is to hold the administration accountable to the community they represent. This means bringing popular, public perspective to recommendations from staff, but also driving priorities from the public. Good council members aren’t there just to rubber stamp ideas from staff. They must remember that staff have a lot of power to determine the information flow to council and the timing and scope of council decisions. Good governance in the public interest requires that council members provide scrutiny and oversight of this mischief too.
Because council chambers are not a Westminster forum – with a government and opposition party – there is increased opportunity and incentive to collaborate on an issue-by-issue basis. In many ways, this is the exact type of collaboration that the public expects from all elected officials. On the other hand though, the inability to hide behind a parliamentary caucus means that members of council need to be forthright about their own views, especially when other members may not agree.
Next week’s meeting of the Northwestern Ontario Municipal Association will provide a snapshot of the need for renewal and the diversity crisis in local government across the region. Those newcomers putting their name forward would be wise to absorb what they can about the municipal governance structure. A four year term is far too short to implement change when you’re learning on the job.
Douglas W. Judson is a lawyer and community advocate based in Northwestern Ontario/Treaty #3 territory. Connect with him at firstname.lastname@example.org or @dwjudson.